Cody Bellinger gets asked often if his current form is the best he’s felt at the plate since his 2019 MVP season. It’s for good reason, and the Cubs cleanup man is not downplaying how locked in he is right now.
“I feel really good,” Bellinger said. “It’s just the understanding of my body and strength and knowing what I need to do everyday.”
With his go-ahead two-run single in the sixth inning, Bellinger has driven in 19 runs this month. Even with a week left in July, that is the most runs he’s plated in a month since before his 2020 shoulder injury, when Bellinger drove in 20 that August.
And with two more hits Saturday, Bellinger’s slugging percentage actually dropped to .771 in July. As it stands, that’s his highest slugging percentage in a month since April of—you guessed it—2019, when he slugged .843 and drove in 29.
A pair of singles and an RBI groundout on Saturday displayed how Bellinger’s ability to hit for average and contact have matured since he first emerged as a traditional slugger with an uppercut swing.
“His bat-to-ball skills are pretty elite,” said manager David Ross. “There’s a real skill and an art to those guys who can put the ball in play, hit the ball the other way and protect with two strikes. It makes good things happen.”
Leiter Jr.’s pitchability is his escapability
Furor over umpire Ron Kulpa’s generous strike call on a 3-1 pitch to Cardinals outfielder Alec Burleson on Friday, overshadowed how Mark Leiter Jr.’s escape from a bases loaded jam was also a demonstration of why he’s been an effective late-inning relief option.
Like any pitcher worth his salt, Leiter felt he nicked the outside edge on his 3-0 sinker. Then praised his catcher Miguel Amaya for keeping his mitt on the same sightline as the previous pitch to the umpire, obscuring that his 3-1 cutter didn’t dart as far back to the zone.
With an irritated Burleson now worried about a wide zone, Leiter followed with a sinker that started out in the same tunnel of the last pitch that had just earned a strike call, before late movement pushed it even farther out and induced a defensive swing for an easy double play ball.
“If you set up pitches, you have a better chance,” said Leiter. “Maybe he’s looking for that [cutter] that’s coming back, and now he has to protect and can expand [the zone]. That’s part of the game that’s always been here and needs to stay. Pitchability is the biggest factor in baseball.”
Leiter sits low-90s, but with pitchability, movement and sequencing, the 32-year-old touts a career-best 31.5 strikeout rate in a high-leverage role, with a 3.29 ERA after another scoreless eighth inning on Saturday.
A shaky opener
A first pitch homer from Lars Nootbaar off Michael Fulmer draws attention, but the real benefit of the opener strategy Saturday was supposed to be prodding the Cardinals to stack lefty bats at the top of the order against lefty Drew Smyly.
Instead, the left-handed Nootbaar collected two more hits off Smyly and scored three times total, and lefty slugger Nolan Gorman hit a 445-foot home run, as Smyly was tagged for five runs in 3 2/3 innings.
“You try to plan some of these things out early that make sense numbers-wise,” Ross said. “Then you’ve got to go play a game, and then the first pitch of the game gets hit out of the ballpark by a lefty.”
Jameson Taillon will make a traditional start Sunday.